REVIEW: Smokin’ Aces

The first thing one needs to process about Joe Carnahan’s “Smokin’ Aces” is that it’s not as good as Carnahan’s last movie, “Narc,” but that that’s okay because most movies aren’t as good as “Narc.” The second thing is that, yes, “Smokin’ Aces” is 100% a Guy Ritchie angry-toughguy-all-about-the-‘tude crime shoot `em up, only with sloshy London Grime swapped for sun-burned Vegas Kitsch (despite technically taking place mostly in Lake Tahoe)… but that there’s also really nothing wrong with that.

For a change, here’s a movie thats being 100% honest about it’s intent and reason for being. It’s trailers say: “Look at me! I’m an angry, superviolent, pissed-off-at-the-world-little-boy-except-I’m-nearing-3o faux-macho crime movie! You want outlandish hitmen? ‘cool’ leading men with personality-identifying facial hair? Female characters who’re either hookers, fetishized-lesbians or fetishized-lesbian hookers? Buckets o’ blood? Deliberately-labyrinthine “Usual Suspects”-esque pretzel-plotting? Memorization-ready Mafia “tuff-talk” dialogue? Come and get it!!” It’s a slickly-made B-movie, it’s pure genre, it’s exploitation, it’s a big brawny bear-hug to the subcultures of movie-geekdom that worship at the altar of “Boondock Saints” and “True Romance,” yes… and it’s glorious in how comfortably and unashamedly it occupies it’s own skin like some aged-yet-contented professional roadie occupying a vintage “Kiss Army” tank-top.

The film is made, at least as at the skeleton, of simple elements: A collection of unique, outrageous characters – all of whom are heavily-armed, a reason for them to start emptying ammunition at one-another, and a location for them to do so. In a nutshell: Vegas lounge-fixture and wannabe mobster Buddy “Aces” Israel is holed-up in a Lake Tahoe penthouse, binging on booze, drugs and hookers before turning State’s Evidence with, we’re told, enough connections and secrets to bring down what’s left of The Mob. Two FBI agents (Ray Liotta, Ryan Reynolds) are on the way to collect him, a sleazy bail bondsman (Ben Affleck) and his crew are looking to get there first for a whole other reason, and so are several different contingents of contract-killers hot for the million dollar bounty the mob apparently has on Israel’s head.

Alongside the tuff-talk and random comic-dialogue digressions, the arrangement of hired-gun characters make up the bulk of “why the movie was made.” It almost seems as though Carnahan is attempting a “Kill Bill”-style collection of disparate genre fixture: The pair of witty, bantering female stealth-snipers (one played by an action-debuting Alicia Keyes, and lemme say “holy shit!” for the record) come off like side-characters from “Sin City.” A Latin American super-suave minimalist seems to have migrated from the world of “007.” The neo-nazi Tremor Brothers show up costumed for a “Mad Max” knockoff and employ chainsaws, road-flares and axes in their arsenal. A no-nonsense master of latext-makeup disguise reminded me so much of perennial Spider-Man adversary The Chameleon that I had to keep reminding myself not to call him that. (The vampire, the ninjas and the trained razor-wielding gorilla, presumably, got stuck at the bus station.)

Basically, all of these people converge on Israel’s hotel and eventually open-fire on one another for the duration of the 2nd and 3rd acts. Some live, some die, loyalties shift, secrets are revealed, twists reveal more twists, and eventual it all makes a certain kind of sense in a maximum-plot/minimum-story sort of way. Appraisal isn’t really complicated in these cases: You either enjoy the spectacle of good actors having fun speaking craftier-than-necessary dialogue while blasting the shit out of eachother, having drug-induced breakdowns or dragging the post-“Swingers” ironic-Rat-Pack-appreciation schtick around the track for another lap.. or you don’t. This time out, I dug it once again.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

Oscars 2006 – Part 2

So… Now that the happy dancing over “Dreamgirls” not having a shot as Best Picture is done, let’s get on with it:

BEST PICTURE:
The Departed, Letters From Iwo Jima, Babel, Little Miss Sunshine, The Queen.

I still haven’t seen it (soon enough) but just about everyone I know who HAS is kinda surprised “The Queen” got in there. The pervailing buzz seems to be “performance peice, really good BBC movie, not BP material.” Dunno, didn’t see yet, doesn’t matter, not gonna win.

I may have to start a new review policy for “Babel.” From now on, when I’m reeeeaaaally generous to a flawed but well-meaning movie and it goes on to be hugely overrated come awards season, I’m gonna start knocking off points. This is getting ridiculous. Oh, and SHAME on the Academy for snubbing “United 93.” The gossip will be that it couldn’t get a nod because too many members were too afraid to watch it. If so, the word for them is COWARD.

Having now seen “Letters From Iwo Jima,” I can no longer be surprised that it’s there. It’s the best WWII movie since “Saving Private Ryan.” It even raises the profile, imo, of “Flags of Our Fathers” both by association and by the genuine “whoa” of seeing the way the two stories intersect. Clint Eastwood: Best living actor-director. Period.

My gut says that “Departed” and “Little Miss Sunshine” are the frontrunners. Both are atypical as Oscar fair: A violent crime flick and an R-rated family comedy. I’d be more fond of a “Departed” win, largely because Scorsese deserves it at this point but also because I think it’s the overall better and more deserving film.

BEST ACTOR:
Leonardo DiCaprio, Ryan Gosling, Forest Whitaker, Peter O’Toole, Will Smith

Wow. Great list this time around. All great actors, all solid turns, all largely worthy. It’s Whitaker’s to lose, but Peter O’Toole’s resigned not-long-for-this-worldness on the talk show circuit may tip it in his favor.

BEST ACTRESS:
Penelope Cruz, Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Dame Judi Dench, Kate Winslet

Yeah, Helen Mirren will win. Long time coming, etc, etc. Cruz is mainly lucky she got a second chance at being taken seriously by U.S. audiences after her first few “hot new thing” duds threatend to render her the female Yahoo Serious. Winslet would be a worthy upset, but as “Little Children” hasn’t been seen by, well, ANYONE she will sadly have to be content with the honor of starring in one of the only Oscar nominated performances destined to provide “Mr. Skin” with a literal pile of usable clips. Thank the gods for her.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:
Jackie Earle Haley, Mark Whalberg, Djimon Honsou, Eddie Murphy, Alan Arkin

Money says Murphy, gut says Arkin. THRILLED to see the appreciation for Jackie Earle Haley, who between “Little Children” and “All The Kings Men” had an amazing comeback from child star oblivion… in two movies NOBODY got to see. Hopefully, this means more work.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:
Adriana Barraza, Abigail Breslin, Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Hudson, Rinko Kikuchi

TWO from “Babel?” Eh… Barraza gave a good performance, at least, and Kikuchi gave a GREAT one, contributing to the problem that I keep forgetting that her deaf-mute Japanese teenager was the not-even-really-that-related third bit from “Babel” and not a seperate, exponentially better movie of it’s own. Breslin, the little girl from “Little Miss Sunshine,” will not win but WILL be the most often-photographed celebrity in the entire audience.

Does it make me a bad person that I want Jennifer Hudson to NOT win this… not because of her performance, which was decent in an otherwise shitty movie… but because her win would lend retroactive credibility to the national shame known as “American Idol?” If so, well… tough. I have what I consider to be a rational position on “Idol”: namely, every person involved in it’s inception and continued existance should be sitting in a windowless cell in Guantanamo Bay have jumper-cable clamps affixed to their reproductive organs by Keifer Sutherland.

BEST DIRECTOR:
Clint Eastwood, Paul Greengrass, Stephen Frears, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Martin Scorsese

Gotta hand it to AMPAS, in a year where THE story in directing was the “three amigos” of spanish origin, they picked for a BD nod the one who’s movie wasn’t that good. This is a tough one, here’s my read: If Martin Scorsese wins this, it means “Departed” will NOT get picture and this is his consolation/”sorry to ignore you for the last few decades” prize. One way or another, I see another weird “split” year.

The sticking-out one is Greengrass for “United 93.” By Academy rules, “everyone” only votes for picture while the other categories are voted on by folks with the same jobs, explaining how U93 could be in for Director but not Picture. With no one else from it nominated, it could be that theres STRONG sentiment in there for it so the prize could be his.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Little Miss Sunshine, Babel, The Queen, Letters From Iwo Jima, Pan’s Labyrinth

Wow, “Pan’s?” Pleasant surprise. “Sunshine,” I believe, has it in the bag for this one.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Borat, Children of Men, Departed, Little Children, Notes On a Scandal

Okay, let’s get this out of the damn way: “Borat” is nominated here because it is technically “based on” the Ali G sketches. Still kinda hazy logic if you ask me, but on the other hand.. “Borat” is an Academy Award nominee!!!!!!! Oh, and “Departed” will probably win.

More categories next post.

Oscars 2006: THERE IS A GOD!

…AND HE/SHE HATED “DREAMGIRLS,” TOO!

A visual representation of this year’s Best Picture nominess:

ABOVE: Obscenely-overrated, presumed-frontrunner

“Dreamgirls” snubbed for Best Picture; four

good movies (and “Babel”) nominated instead.

Nothing, nothing, NOTHING winning could make me as happy as “Dreamgirls” not even getting a chance to. Hurrah! Some thoughts on the actual NOMINEES when I have had more sleep. Until then…

Golden Globes 2006

Best Motion Picture Drama: “Babel”!

Wow.

What boldness. What bravery. What sheer perceptive grandeur this choice represents.

For two long, the world has ignored the Great Social Problem of people-not-aware-that-firing-a-loaded-rifle-at-a-moving-bus-will-often-have-ill-effects. In a moviegoing year where big, flashy distractions like “acting,” “direction,” “vision” or “subtlety” were all the rage… the distinguised Hollywood Foriegn Press Association chose to go out on a limb and throw their top honors to the ONLY film that had the gumption to tackle people-not-aware-that-firing-a-loaded-rifle-at-a-moving-bus-will-often-have-ill-effects with the maturity and awareness it deserves… the ONLY film with the conviction and the guts to take the risky boxoffice gamble of bludgeoning it’s audience into submission with the powerful tool of trite, obvious messageering.

Yeegh.

The Golden Globes having been hemorraging what limited credibility they ever had for about the last five years or so… and B.S. like this is the reason why. “Babel” isn’t a “bad” movie, at least not compared to the majority of films this year. I recall giving it an (incredibly generous) 7/10 awhile back, in fact. But “Best” anything?? Not even close. Not even in a year where it isn’t nominated against “The Departed” or “Little Children.”

Well done, HFPA. You’ve managed to instantly turn a respectable if frequently-irritating little “message movie” into an instant tie with “Dreamgirls” for the most overrated films of the year.

MLK Day

Today is the day that 49 of 50 American states set aside in memory of one of the men most deserving of the term American Hero. On that note, I want to share a brief clip with all of you who may or may not have seen it yet.

I’m not a devoted fan of Aaron McGruder’s animated series “The Boondocks,” nor the often preachy comic strip (also from McGruder) which inspired it. Let me say at least that I think the series is a tremendous improvement over the strip, as the necessities of a narrative force the characters to be rendered as three-dimensional and human as opposed to mere souding-boxes for McGruder’s political editorializing. Though consistently uneven, it has moments of genuine heart and power that are more effecting than almost anything being attempted on live-action TV.

I can also say, with total self-assuredness, that the series “peaked” in it’s first season; offering an “MLK Weekend” episode so solid, funny and utterly moving that I can’t fathom another installment of the series ever equalling it: It was not only the best I can ever imagine that “The Boondocks” will ever be, it was instantly one of the finest episodes of anything I’ve ever seen on television, period.

(Just for the sake of context, “The Boondocks” is about a pair of black grade-schoolers, one a politically-minded rebel, the other a ‘gangsta’-culture devotee, who move with their grandfather to an upscale suburb.)

The episode, titled “Return of The King,” imagines an alternate timeline where Martin Luther King was not killed by the assassin’s bullet, but merely fell into a 40-year coma. King awakes in 2001, and is at first celebrated… until his pronouncements of peace and nonviolence fall on deaf ears in a post-9/11 America. Soon his realization of how little progress has been made, in his view, since the Civil Rights heyday, coupled with he sorry state of black pop-culture, drives King to depression. Left largely unsaid, save for some subtly-seething facial expressions, is the animated King’s alarm at his people’s casual tossing-around of “The N-Word.” Until the finale…

…At the episode’s climax, lead character Huey teams with King in a last-ditch effort to get Black America back on track by forming a new political party. But when their innaugural event degenerates into a BET/Source Awards-style debacle, Dr. King has had enough, and decides to let his people know what he thinks of what they’ve done with the world he left them:

I’m not nuts about a lot of what McGruder mouths off about, in his comic or otherwise, but this one I’ll give him without reservation: Setting out to write dialogue for a resurrected MLK is ballsy to begin with; having him voice anger and dissapointment you can easily see him actually feeling as opposed to empty platitudes is damn near fearless. Mr. McGruder, take a bow.

REVIEW: Pan’s Labyrinth

It should be understood, before embarking to see Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” that the film isn’t so much a “fantasy set during the Spanish Civil War” but rather a story of the Spanish Civil War in which the fantastical imaginings (or maybe more?) of a young girl form one of the main plotlines. Even moreso than in del Toro’s more definitively-supernatural “The Devil’s Backbone,” the film offers scenes of fairytale creatures and fantasy realms as welcome-intrusions into a main story which, while compelling, would be almost unbearably bleak without them.

The girl in question is Ofelia (Ivana Baquero,) who travels with her recently-widowed and uncomfortably-pregnant mother to the secluded mill/military outpost which is currently home to the mother’s new husband, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez.) A decorated member of the Fascist army of Franco’s Spain, Vidal is a meticulous psychopath who’s managed to parlay his inhuman tendencies into a position of great regard; “his” mill borders a forest occupied by the Rebels he is aiming to slowly and painfully gring into submission. Like most villians of his ilk, the Captain is also (poorly) working through some serious “daddy” issues, and wastes no time in making life suitably hellish for Ofelia – he’s really only interested in her mother, or more precisely the innevitability of her giving him a son.

Left to her own devices, Ofelia escapes – maybe literally – into her books of fairytales, and has soon made contact with Pan, a half-man/half-goat “faun” inhabiting the decaying stone maze behind the mill. According to Pan, she is the reincarnated spirit of a long-lost Underworld Princess, and must complete a series of tests to gain re-entry to her kingdom. These “tests,” and the strange realms they take Ofelia to, effectively comprise the “margins” of the film; while the “main” arc of the film focuses dually on some profoundly suspenseful wartime cloak-and-dagger business as rebels, soldiers and spies vie for control of the area and an unnervingly-intimate character study of the mad Captain Vidal himself.

And make no mistake, while the fantasy sequences provide memorable set peices of Ofelia confronting monsters like a giant toad and a ghastly creation I can only accurately describe as “The Jazz Hands Monster,” del Toro and his narrative are centered on the very human monster driving it’s events. Vidal is easily the “best” movie bad guy of the year, played by Lopez as so brazenly wicked that at times it feels as though the Labyrinth and it’s mythical denizens exist mainly to justify him… as though a human character this demonic could only seem plausible in a world where frog monsters and fauns seem to be roaming about.

Much more cannot really be said of the plot, as it becomes both complicated and secret-packed fairly quickly, but it can be said in summation that the film is a masterpeice and very likely del Toro’s best film to date. A great deal will be argued over as it’s release continues, much of it dealing with the somewhat unanswerable question of what is actually going on in the film and which (if any) single genre it actually belongs in, but what I don’t believe can be disputed is that del Toro is the best matchmaker of childlike fantasy with grownup bleakness since Terry Gilliam; not exactly trivial praise.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

REVIEW: Primeval

WARNING: BIGGEST SPOILER OF THE ENTIRE MOVIE IN FIRST LINE OF REVIEW!

It’s about a crocodile, okay?

Sorry, but there’s no way to get to a critique of “Primeval” without giving that away. Dropped unceremoniously into the middle of the January movie doldrums and then rocketed to release a scant month after it’s trailers started popping up, “Primeval’s” handlers concocted one of the more amusing advertising ploys of recent: A return to the sideshow-barker style of half-cleverly/half-deceptively promoting B-movies.

In this case, the ads have been teasing an Africa-set “true story” of “Gustave… the world’s most-prolific serial-killer!,” while only vaugely alluding to the fact that “Gustave” is, in fact, a giant crocodile that supposedly terrorized an African marshland toward the tail end of the Rwandan genoicide. Given the moved-up release date, it’s entirely possible that a good deal of people who turn out for “Primeval” won’t initially realize they’re getting an old-fashioned creature-feature, a prospect which is (expectedly) more fun to contemplate than the film actually is to watch.

Best-described (pardon my morbidity) as “Hotel Rwanda” meets “Anaconda,” the nominal story concerns a newsman (Dominic Purcell, aka “that guy from “Prison Break”) and his cameraman (Orlando Jones, aka “the most criminally underused character-actor in America) who get shipped down to war-torn Burundi to help an animal issues journalist (Brooke Langton) cover the attempt by an Aussie animal trapper (Gideon Emery in what now feels like a really, really mis-timed ribbing of Steve Irwin) to caputre Gustave, who when eventually seen is about the size of two SUVs. Jurgen Prochnow is also on hand, since no self-respecting monster movie can go trudging off into the wilderness without a celebrate character actor hamming it up in the Jon Voigt role.

There’s really nothing going on thats as much fun as the initial “oh, it’s a crocodile? Nifty!” probably is (I knew beforehand) but despite the ease-of-creation now afforded by CGI we just don’t get enough old-school monster movies in theatres these days… so it’s almost enough to reccomend “Primeval” just on the basis of it being the only entry in the genre fans can get right now. It’s also at least got the nominal interest provided by it’s African setting, and the matter-of-factness with which it weaves the factual humanitarian tragedy of the region into the “something in the water” forumla.

Raised, but left largely unexplored, is the intriquing notion of “Gustave” as a living consequence of the genocide around him, implying that the constant supply of freshly-dead corpses choking the country’s waterways is cheifly responsible for turning the creature into a maneater and a giant. A better and possibly great genre film could be made from that notion, but “Primeval” is content to stay right about where it is: A decently-mounted B-movie with a clever marketing hook. You can do a lot worse, I promise you. After all, “Dreamgirls” is still playing…

FINAL RATING: 6/10

REVIEW: Perfume: The Story of A Murderer

Minor Spoilers.

Most of you have probably seen, by now, the lobby poster for “Perfume” hanging in the local theater at some point. It’s one of the classiest posters of the year, a basic black-and-white shot of a beautiful woman being “scattered” into wind-blown red rose petals. Simple, elegant and subtle. The best way to imagine what “Perfume” is actually like as a movie is to stare really, really hard at that poster and try to imagine it’s polar-opposite. This film, courtesy “Run Lola Run” helmer Tom Tykwer, is not subtle, simple, elegant or any other phrase that good be used to describe it’s one-sheet or the notion of “tasteful” in general: It’s schlock.” High camp. Pure, unadulterated nonsense; an icky-for-ickiness’-sake wallow in the oceans of insta-shock produced by juxtaposing period costume-drama with serial-murder and sexual-perversion…

…so I loved it.

In final analysis, “Perfume” is a textbook entry in the curiously large sub-genre of horror/exploitation films that fuse wig-and-feather period drama or upscale/Euro settings in general with copious gore and sex. It’s a diverse swath of work, encompassing everything from Jess Franco’s arty lesbian vampire cycle to Walerian Borowczyk’s “The Beast” to huge chunks of Italian “giallo” auteurs and Fellini imitators… all the way up to prominent modern examples like Ridley Scott’s “Hannibal” or Christophe Gans’ “Brotherhood of The Wolf.” As arthouse-slashers go, “Perfume” settles in nicely with some fairly distinguished brethren.

Based on a novel thought to be “unfilmmable,” “Perfume” is best-described as a longform “origin story” for a comic book supervillian cruelly plunked down in eighteenth century France instead of Gotham City; as Jean-Batiste Grenouille (newcomer Ben Wishaw,) lacks only a stylish nickname (“The Nose” would work) in terms of characteristics which would make him a more suitable adversary for Batman or Dick Tracy than the clueless investigators he battles here.

In other words, he’s an amoral psychopath with a Super Power; in this case a sense of smell so precise it allows him to deduce chemical formulas just by instinct, track anything over great distances, detect attacks without looking, etc. It also, of course, forms the theme of his crimes: Stalking and murdering the young women of “The Perfume Capitol of France” so he can boil their bodies down and make perfume from their “souls.” (No, really.) He also, strangely, lacks a scent of his own, which comes in handy for sneaking up on victims.

Born in wretched poverty, Grenouille hones his craft as a professional perfumer under Baldini (Dustin Hoffman, way too acutely aware of what sort of film he’s actually appearing in,) who’s willing to ignore the boy’s obvious insanity in exchange for the fortune his formulas bring. But Grenouille is only interested in learning a technique that’ll allow him to preserve the scent of individual humans, a drive which leads him to a perfumer’s paradise and to the above-described murder spree. Aiming to stop him at all costs is Alan Rickman (more subdued than he’s been in awhile) as the father of the town’s most beautiful and thus most-likely-to-be-victimized young woman.

Tykwer is, demonstrably, aware of the sort of film he’s got on his hands and lets it play out largely unhigned. The relative bloodlessness of Grenouille’s kills aren’t exactly an inhibitor.. he packs the film with sick, creepy visuals to literalize the effects of super-smell on it’s user, and he knows when to go for broke: The gotta-see-it-to-believe-it finale is one of the most insane things ever put on screen, period. He’s also not afraid to let the story descend into outright farce when it needs to, we are after all talking about a movie about a serial-killer perfumer.

Trust me, it’s been a long time since you saw something this nuts in a theatre. That alone should be reason for the curious to seek it out. You won’t see another murder movie this year like it, and Act Three is one for the books. Recomended.
FINAL RATING: 8/10

REVIEW: Little Children

MINOR SPOILERS.

“Little Children” is a study in how you can redeem a movie in the finale. For those who’ve already seen it, please understand that I don’t mean to infer that the film is saved by the surprisingly “hoo-rah for traditionalism!” bent of it’s eventual “moral,” but by the way such comes about by turning what for 2 1/2 hours has seemed a formulaic entry in a tired subgenre entirely on it’s head. For nearly the entire length of the feature I was torn between admiring it’s craft and despising it’s cliche “middle-class hell” moralizing, only to realize too late I’d been played: What at first seems to be either another slog through “suburbanites, what a bunch of easy-to-satirize la-hooo-zers!” “American Beauty” territory or the longest, most-predictable (but best-acted) episode of “Desperate Housewives” ever… instead winds up as something poignant, subtle and in some respects even cautionary, think Douglas Sirk adapting “Lolita.”

What we have, at least at first, is another long-form goof on how plastic and soulless suburbia is, especially for Sarah (Kate Winslet,) whom we gather became a wife/mommy without fully wanting or meaning to, and now finds herself feeling trapped and pining for her romantic, adventurous “free” days as an English Lit major. She maintains her sanity by insisting to herself that she remains a more evolved being than her fellow playground moms, Jane Goodall among tupperware-thumping apes, and tends to regard her toddler daughter and internet-porn addicted husband as some sort of alien creatures. She’d be, at first, wholly unsympathetic right off the bat, save that she’s well written and Winslet seems incapable of giving an unengaging performance.

In any case, Sarah soon finds release by buddying up to Brad (Patrick Wilson) the mysterious, hunky stay-at-home dad dubbed “the prom king” by the chattering playgrounders. A passionate affair soon follows, driving further changes for both: Suddenly, Sarah is all girlish and smiley again, while Brad re-discovers his college football glory days with a local night league. Yes, all the hush-hush sneaking and snuggling is making them “young” again, and we’re in (seemingly) familiar territory, waxing the romantic about a generation’s attempt to remain perpetually 19. This would be our first major story-arc, and if you’ve seen every (or even most) other arthouse-indie about recuperative infidelity in the ‘burbs you’ll probably think you know where this is headed…

Story #2 concerns the mounting neighborhood fervor as paroled sex-offender Ronnie (indecent exposure to a minor) moves back in with his aging mother. Played by Jackie Earle Haley, (still in the midst of an amazing “comeback”.. in movies people aren’t seeing much,) Ronnie is the obsession of the neighborhood vigilantes who are sure that he’s not going to change. As one truly tragic scene demostrates, they’re probably right. The antagonism is coming from a bullish, disgraced former cop, and the constant background noise of a train-whistle helpfully indicates that the two stories are on a collision course. But if you think you can guess how it’ll wrap up.. so did I, and I was wrong.

I’ll be honest, I was pretty ambivalent about this one beforehand (and during a good deal of it, too.) I mainly showed up to weigh in for awards season, and out of adherence to a personal rule that I see anything Kate Winslet makes as soon as I can (and in this case, the sub-entry to that rule to see anything she’s in that’s sure to include nudity sooner than that.) And while I’m still surprised to have enjoyed the film as a whole, my adoration for it’s lead actress remains consistent: She’s still probably the best actress of her generation, still improbably gorgeous even as the film tries (mightily but unsuccessfully) to make her “frumpy” in the first act, and still gifted with a certain fearlessness in regards to physical performance.

(Small note, in this regard, to critics and best actress awards voters who like to toss around that word “fearless”: Playing an “inspiring teacher,” the movingly-handicapped or doning piles of “ugly” makeup is not “fearless.” An actress in her 30s going nude and feigning [implied] anal intercourse on the attic floor after having had two kids in real life… thats a little closer to fearless.)

It’s not a masterpiece. The acting is excellent from a great cast, Todd Fields’ direction is sharp and crisp, the script is literate (even the initially-cheesy voiceover narration works) and I love the final act and the realization that the film has an entirely different take on it’s subject matter than it first appeared. However, at 2 1/2 hours it’s much too long in the 2nd act (seriously, guys, I like to watch Mrs. Winslet bounce around naked as much as anyone, but padding the movie is still padding the movie.) In addition, while performed by capable actors, some of the supporting cast are played much too broadly and become cartoons, particularly Gregg Edelmen as Winslet’s one-dimensional husband and Mary B. McCann as the icy uber-mom Mary Ann.

Still, it wasn’t at all what I was expecting and I’ll call it a happy surprise. Overall, reccomended.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

REVIEW: Children of Men

Minor Spoilers.

As stylistic mashups go, “Children of Men” sets itself a doozy: The narrative machinations of a “lone hero challenges evil empire” scifi-actioner (think “UltraViolet,”) are here transposed into the “body” of a fastidiously-logical, realistic and earthbound “speculative fiction” drama. In other words, while it is indeed the story of a rough-hewn loner (Clive Owen) roped into gaurdianship of what the film stridently avoids calling a “chosen one” against the forces of both a terrorist resistance and a fascist police state of the near future, it all plays out with almost none of the bombast or flair that one would normally expect given the plot summary: Owen’s character is defined by his gift for heroic endurance, yes, but he never quite discovers his inner kung-fu master like the usual heroes of this story, and he retains a human being’s depressing vulnerability to weaknesses significantly less-impressive than Kryptonite (in this case, a tendency to lose his footwear.)

The setting, loosely-adapted from a book by P.D. James, is a near-flung future where some unexplained/unknown oddity has caused humanity to become infertile. There hasn’t been a new baby for 18 years, the world is literally aging into oblivion, and only Britain has managed to survive by turning itself into a xenophobic dictatorship: Cops patrol the streets forcefully-deporting illegal immigrants, corraling them into refugee/concentration camps in big buses labeled “Homeland Security.” (MESSAGE!!!!!!!!!!) But open-war with a revolutionary/terrorist organization half-masquerading as a refugee activist group is looming right around the corner, and the citizenry’s last desperate hope is a near-legend group of elite scientists called The Human Project said to be working to save us all from some hidden island locale.

Amid the squalor, low-level beaurocrat Theo (Owen) finds himself roped into helping a young “fugee” woman who desperately needs to get out of the country for a rendevousz with The Human Project. The reason? Somehow, she’s become pregnant, which makes her an immediate target of both the brutal government and the conniving terrorists, both of whom would likely snatch up a living baby to use as a rallying cry.

As said above, the film is essentially an action movie playing by the physical rules and “tics” of a somber drama. As such, while Theo finds himself having to literally fight his way across the country, the film avoids fisticuffs and weaponry duels in favor of more organic variations: A “car chase” involving a broken-down junker rolling downhill and enemies on foot, or a massive “caught between too armies” battle sequence where the One Man is also the only man without a gun. In addition, a striking number of scenes are filmed as elaborate, extended single-takes; but executed in such a matter-of-fact way that most of them are half-over before you realize your witnessing a remarkably daring work of stunt-shooting.

While it’s not, as some critics have jumped to calling it, “the best science fiction film of the new century,” (that honor STILL belongs to “Equilibrium”), this is an excellent peice of work from director Alfonso Cuarron. You’ll note below that it recieves 9/10 instead of a perfect-10. Sorry, but I had to deduct for the film’s sole but extremely visible bit of flat out “gimme a BREAK!” silliness near the end. See it and you’ll know what I’m talking about… but the bottom line is, SEE IT.

FINAL RATING: 9/10